U.S. uranium concentrate production totaled 2.44 million pounds in 2017, down 16% from 2016 and the lowest annual total since 2.28 million pounds of uranium concentrate was produced in 2004. Domestic concentrate production peaked at 43.7 million pounds in 1980 but has remained lower than 5 million pounds annually since 1997.
Uranium milling involves extracting uranium ore, crushing it into a fine powder, and adding chemicals to separate the uranium. The United States currently has only one operating uranium mill. At Utah’s White Mesa Mill, uranium concentrate can be produced from a number of primary mines, as well as from alternate or recycled sources.
The production of uranium concentrate, also known as triuranium octoxide (U3O8), or more commonly as yellowcake, is the first step in the nuclear fuel production process. Uranium concentrate is then converted into uranium hexafluoride (UF6), enriched, fabricated into fuel pellets, and loaded into nuclear fuel assemblies.
Uranium concentrate is currently produced at seven facilities in the United States: six in-situ leach plants in Nebraska and Wyoming and one uranium mill in Utah. In-situ leaching, or in-situ recovery, is a process where a solution injected into uranium deposits produces a slurry, which is pumped to a processing facility where uranium is separated to produce yellowcake.
During 2017, a significant portion of domestic uranium concentrate came from alternate sources such as conversion facilities and various clean-up sites. For decades, the White Mesa Mill received approval to recycle about 20 different sources of alternate feed materials. Recently these alternate feeds have accounted for a larger share of overall uranium production. Some of the uranium concentrate contained in the recycled material would have been reported as primary production in a prior year. For this reason, the amount of uranium production attributable solely to primary mining and alternate feeds in 2017 is less than the total 2.44 million pounds supplied.
Domestic uranium production continues to decline under historically low uranium prices. During 2017, the spot U3O8 price remained between $20 and $25 per pound, lower than the spot price in 2005 through early 2016. The correlation of declining production and uranium prices suggests that the operating costs of most U.S. producers are higher than revenues from processing mined uranium deposits.
Domestically produced uranium makes up a small portion of the uranium delivered to U.S. nuclear power plants. EIA’s latest Uranium Marketing Annual Report, with data for 2016, showed that U.S.-origin uranium made up 5.4 million pounds, or 11%, of the 50.6 million pounds delivered to U.S. nuclear plants in 2016. Four countries—Canada, Kazakhstan, Australia, and Russia—each supplied more uranium to U.S. nuclear plants in 2016 than the United States. The 2017 Uranium Marketing Annual Report is expected to be published in June.